When someone survives a traumatic event when others perished they are often plagued by something called Survivor Guilt.  Survivor guilt is very common among survivors of the following events:

  • Natural disasters
  • Combat veterans
  • Workplace violence
  • Domestic violence
  • Sexual assault
  • Friends and family of those who’ve committed suicide
  • Co-workers of those who’ve been laid-off

Whether or not someone suffers from survivor guilt depends on their individual psychological make-up.  In the current edition of the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV), Survivor Guilt was removed as a separate disorder and renamed as a common symptom of PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In the 1960s several psychotherapists found that Holocaust survivors were experiencing nearly identical psychological conditions so this was when Survivor Guilt was first recognized and identified as a disorder.  Since then similar symptoms have been identified in survivors of many kinds of traumatic events including those named above as well as terrorist attacks and airplane crashes.

A variant type of Survivor Guilt has been manifested among first responders such as  rescue workers and emergency personnel who come to blame themselves for not doing enough to save others.  Medical personnel sometimes experience survivor guilt at the loss of someone they took care of.  Family members may experience survivor guilt if a loved one dies either by accident or commits suicide.

People who survive a traumatic event when others died or were physically or emotionally injured, especially if it is someone they feel some sense of responsibility for, or perhaps even know and love, commonly feel a sense of guilt for surviving the event.  This feeling may be an immediate response to the event.  The extent of this feeling of Survivor Guilt all depends on the person affected and their own emotional make-up.

In its simplest form, it may come down to the fact that they are alive and their friend, co-worker, combat buddy, or loved one is either impaired or dead.  This is a manifestation of grief and loss, coupled with self blame for the event, or for not doing enough to prevent it or save the lives of others.  Sometimes it occurs because they were meant to attend an event, but for some reason didn’t go.  Survivor Guilt takes many forms, but it is a very common manifestation in the wake of a traumatic event when people are seriously injured or died.

In a more complex variant, survivor guilt can result from emotional pain.  For example, psychotherapists sometimes blame themselves for not being able to do enough to alleviate the emotional suffering of their patients, and they feel guilty.  Family members and loved ones often experience survivor guilt when someone becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol, overdoses, or is involved in dysfunctional relationships involving abuse.

There are those who become consumed with Survivor Guilt may show impaired functioning.  For those that find themselves stuck in survivor guilt or who have trouble functioning normally, it’s important to seek professional help.  Depression frequently occurs among those who experience survivor guilt.

Because our treatment for depression relies on evidence based practices, our Intensive Outpatient Program shares many common methods with other successful treatment methods.  The foundation of our treatment program for relies on the principles of the stages of change, cognitive behavioral therapy, solution focused treatment, skills training and identifying repetitive dysfunctional behavioral relationship patterns to promote recovery from depression and other mental health disorders.  In fact, our Intensive Outpatient Program in Memphis, TN that has been proven to be effective in the treatment of these disorders in six peer reviewed treatment outcome studies.   Our treatment center provides services to those who need more treatment than one hour a week, but less than 24 hour care, by providing three hours of treatment per day, three to five days per week, in an intensive outpatient setting.  If you or a loved one is showing signs of survivor guilt, depression or anxiety, they should be assessed by a trained mental health professional who can help design a treatment plan for survivor guilt and depression that can result in recovery.  Treatment for depression and anxiety can be highly successful.  Call us at 901-682-6136 to schedule an appointment.